Here in January we’re almost equally distant from the previous professional baseball season (which ended in September) and from the coming one (which begins in April). Pitchers and Catchers report for Spring Training in mid-February, position players report later in the month. Spring Training games begin in March.
At various points in 2014, I picked up DVD copies of two (actually four) favorite baseball movies, plus one I’d never heard of, but found in a $4.99 bin somewhere. They’ve all been siting patiently waiting for me to watch them.
I thought: New Year’s Day sounds like the perfect time to do that!
There was no way I could watch five baseball movies (much as I might love the idea), but given a long, lazy New Year’s Day, a triple-header didn’t sound out of the question.
The only real competition was the Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy channel, and as attractive as that was, the commercials annoy me so much I decided to be my own baseball movie channel.
I thoroughly enjoyed all three movies! Of course I knew I’d love the two old friends. It was the unknown one that had the potential to disappoint.
Generally speaking, baseball movies always appeal to me because I love baseball so much. Some of them aren’t really my cup of tea (the Bad News Bears movies, for example), but I still regard them fondly.
Schneider and Spade are okay, although it really depends on the movie. Heder leaves me cold. Napoleon Dynamite was… interesting, but I’ve never understood why it was such a huge attraction (maybe you have to be a teenager).
In any event, I sat through the whole movie (which means it at least wasn’t offensive to my sensibilities), but I never got into it or even warmed to it. Come the end credits and I see it’s from Happy Madison Productions.
Ah. Light bulb. That’s Adam Sandler’s company. And I hate that guy!
I didn’t hate him in Spanglish (but that was more due to being head over heels for Paz Vega, plus it’s a James L. Brooks film), but outside that one I just can’t stand the man. For me, he’s just a big Avoid! sign. No wonder I didn’t like the baseball movie (apparently I don’t even like movies he produces).
Fortunately, the unknown baseball movie turned out to be a gem. The rather low production value of the DVD, and the full screen format, threw me at first, but it turned out to be a keeper.
As always, this isn’t a movie review so much as a movie celebration and commemoration of movies I’ve really liked. So let’s get to it.
First Base: Bleacher Bums, 2002, Saul Rubinek.
Yes, that Saul Rubinek, the one you’re thinking of (he appears briefly as the “Bruins” manager). This is the unknown one. In fact, it’s so unknown it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page! But I saw it in the $4.99 bin, and it was a baseball movie, so the worst outcome is wasting a couple of hours of my time.
Turns out it’s a TV movie (hence the full-screen format) based on an original 1977 play out of Chicago. The play, Bleacher Bums, does have its own Wiki page, albeit a very brief one.
The entire story takes place during a single baseball game and involves a group of people sitting in the right field bleachers (the cheap seats). They’re all long-time fans who know — but don’t always seem to like — each other. These fans bet constantly with each other; that betting is central to the plot
The baseball team in question is clearly the Chicago Cubs, and the bleachers are clearly at Wrigley Field (unless there’s another MLB baseball park with ivy on the outfield wall). But due to licensing issues, the team and stadium are renamed.
The Cubs have become the “Bruins” (think bear cubs), and the game is against the visiting St. Louis “Eagles” (think birds).
I really liked the idea of the entire movie taking place during a single game. I also like the ending, which involves both losing and winning. That is, those who seem to have lost actually win, and vice versa.
While not the greatest baseball movie ever made, it may well be the most entertaining, most engaging and most watchable. It’s one of those that, if you’re channel surfing and come across it, you’ll stop and watch it. It’s one of those movies you can watch over and over.
It concerns the (real) Cleveland Indians, who (to this day) haven’t won a World Series since 1948. They did take the American League Pennant in 1954 (after a record-breaking season: 111-43), but lost to the New York Giants in the World Series. They wouldn’t win another title until 1995.
The movie is set in 1989 (when it was made). Ballgame attendance is almost non-existent, and the team’s owner (the showgirl widow of the former owner who cared) wants the team to fail so badly that low attendance will allow her to move the team to Miami.
So she puts together a team of misfits and losers designed to fail and makes their life impossible (broken equipment, sub-standard transportation and accommodations). Of course, as with all sports movies, it’s about the team’s success against ridiculous odds.
It’s just sheer, unadulterated fun! Bob “Mr. Baseball” Uecker‘s performance of Harry Doyle is worth the price of admission all on its own. Every true baseball fan knows the immortal phrase:
“Juuuuust a bit outside. He tried the corner and missed.”
For what it is (a fun baseball comedy romp), it’s an almost perfect movie. Every beat seems right on the money, and it is an enduring favorite among baseball fans (many of whom can quote the whole movie having seen it so often).
There are baseball players (especially in Cleveland, especially pitchers) who watch it regularly as part of their routine. Real-life relief pitcher Mitch Williams earned the name “Wild Thing” after Charlie Sheen’s character!
Trivia: The original script had the team owner actually intending the team she loved (and researched and understood) to succeed.
But test audiences so loved hating Margaret Whitton‘s excellent performance, they removed a key scene and re-shot the ending. Good choice I think.
Also: this was Rene Russo‘s first movie!
This is one of the greatest baseball movies ever made. It’s also one of four baseball movies starring Kevin Costner. (One of those others, Field Of Dreams, is also one of the greatest — if not, perhaps, the greatest — baseball movie ever made.)
And for being one of the greatest baseball movies ever, it’s not really a baseball movie. It’s a romantic comedy set against the background of Minor League baseball.
And yet it is so a baseball movie. Any baseball player will tell you how much the movie resonates. Writer-director Ron Shelton was a Minor League player from 1967 to 1971, so he knows his material.
It’s also a wonderfully subversive feminist movie (feminism ala Camille Paglia — a celebration of the power of women). Shelton had the Ancient Greek play, Lysistrata, in mind when he wrote Bull Durham, and Sarandon’s performance absolutely nails it.
All three movies are clear labors of love (which makes such a difference in the feel of a film). The latter two are auteur works: written and directed by one person. I think that, too, makes a difference.
All three are distinct in their own way. Bleacher Bums takes place during a single game, the outcome of which is significant. Major League takes place during a regular season, and is a traditional sports movie in coming down to the “big game” with crucial significance.
But Bull Durham, doesn’t concern itself with that. In fact, both ball players (Costner and Robbins) leave the team before the end of the season. Robbins is “sent up” to “the show” (the big league) while Costner is “released” from the team (he’d only been brought there to mentor Robbins).
Yet, as with Bleacher Bums, the winning in Bull Durham isn’t about the game at all. There is no final game, but it is an amazing story about love and eras of a life.
Combined with Field Of Dreams, that would make an awesome triple-header for next time!
I’ll leave you with the opening monologue from Bull Durham. It’s a voice over by central character Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). Along with the James Earl Jones speech in Field of Dreams, it’s one of two wonderful summations of the game of baseball:
I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology.
You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never borin’ – which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Makin’ love is like hitting a baseball, you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250, unless he had a lot of RBIs or was a great glove man up the middle.
Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.